Dancing Carefully Through An Analysis in Intellectual Property Law

Epic Games Dances Into Players’ Wallets

The hit game of 2018 (released by Epic Games in 2017) Fortnite is getting multiple lawsuits from different performers regarding the use of dance moves available for use within the game. The game allows players to command their avatars to dance, and players may select from a range of available “dance emote” options – available for individual purchase by players (generating over billion dollars for Epic). The plaintiffs allege that some of these options are depictions of the dance moves of celebrities and entertainers.

This case hits most of the usual notes of hard cases in intellectual property: where is the line between homage and plagiarism? How much use of a thing violates fair use? What can be protected by intellectual property law? This case is also an example of how easy it is to think incorrectly about an issue in intellectual property. If we focus too much on understanding why Epic might use the dances of famous people, we can fool ourselves into thinking this is a trademark case. When we approach this case by first assessing what subject matter is at issue, we recognize this as a copyright case. The fact that a dance can be understood, culturally, as a kind of signature is what can lead us into an incorrect analysis of this case as one of trademark and not copyright.

 

It Might Be Your Signature Move, But You Don’t Sign Checks With It And You Don’t Get a Trademark Registration For It

Movements or motions can act as a kind of signature for people—especially those in the public view who want to be remembered. Carol Burnett ended her show with a tug on her ear.  Johnny Carson imitated a golf swing after delivering punch lines in his nightly monologue—Conan O’Brien made a joke of trying to incorporate overly elaborate “signature gestures” into his show during his debut monologue. YouTube performer PewDiePie has made a point to regularly associate himself with a “BroFist” gesture. Politicians often have an associated hand gesture—like Bill Clinton’s half-fist-with-thumb-on-top. A person’s idiosyncrasies make it easy to identify, imitate, and remember them—and imitating a celebrity’s signature movement can invoke an audience’s positive attitudes towards that celebrity. Invoking the goodwill associated with a person for the benefit of someone else sounds strikingly similar to a case of trademark infringement.

So, can dance moves be protected by trademark? If we think of dance as a signature, then it sounds like a kind of source indicator– people associate the dance with an entertainer. But it’s not really used to indicate the origin of a good or service:  NBC doesn’t use Turk’s dance to inform viewers that they’re watching the show Scrubs. And this is why the trademark analysis is the wrong way to think about this case: although the reasoning in the infringement looks like the reasoning involved in trademark infringement (to take advantage of the fame of a celebrity), the subject matter (a dance) is not normally in the domain of trademark law.

It might not be impossible to get a trademark registration for a dance, but it would be difficult. Maybe a dance submitted to the trademark office as part of widely-run marketing campaign could meet a trademark standard. Or a product or service is actually provided with – or because of—the dance might qualify for a trademark registration. I’m not sure if either would earn a trademark registration (it would depend lots of other facts in the trademark application), but it would take a very high level of creativity and ingenuity to secure a trademark registration for a dance.

 

So It’s a Copyright Question?

When we start with the question of subject matter (and not by wondering why someone might copy a dance), we recognize that a question about the depiction of a dance is most likely a question under copyright law. Copyright law recognizes dance as a medium of artistic expression. It makes sense that, if plays and scripts can be protected by copyright, (and copyright protects musical compositions and performances), then copyright can protect the work of dancers and choreographers in ballets, musicals, etc.

Copyright attorney Shanti Sadtler Conway explained, “The U.S. Copyright Office views individual steps the same way it would individual colors or words.” This is interesting for a few reasons, one of which is that colors and words are better defined and understood than the concept of “an individual dance step.” In this case, there are certainly at least several “steps” depicted in each of Fortnite’s dance emotes- the dances appear to last at least 10 seconds. Is that a paragraph’s worth of content, when converted from choreography to prose? A paragraph can be enough to be punishable infringement.

 

The Seminal Question of the Internet: “Is it FAIR USE?”

The two misconceptions I see most often about fair use are 1) “it’s fair use if I don’t make money off it,” and 2) “it’s fair use if I only use a little bit.” Those two things are often among the things that a judge might consider when evaluating whether a use is protected under 17 USC 107, but using even a small percentage of a work might still infringe a copyright.  So, Epic might try to claim fair use, but I’m skeptical about how the court might receive that argument. It might work, but a for-profit, non-transformative, non-parody use of a work does not point to fair use – and, indeed, it likely concedes the point that Epic used someone else’s work.

 

Is This Appropriation of Personal Likeness?

It’s worth reflecting on how easy it was to think of this case as a trademark issue. The reason the case looked like a trademark question was that the alleged infringement appears linked to the fame and celebrity of certain individuals. There is another area of law that can address this kind of claim: right of publicity. These state laws touch on ideas in both copyright and trademark law, and apply them specifically to the depiction or representation of a person.

In 1988, Ginger Rogers lost her case against a filmmaker who made a movie referencing her in the title (though the film was not about her, some general elements evoked her career as the Hollywood dance partner of Fred Astaire). She brought claims under trademark law as well as claims regarding her right of publicity. Sadly for her, the court held that “minimally relevant use of a celebrity’s name in the title of an artistic work” was not a violation of Rogers’ rights. Although it wasn’t a Supreme Court decision, the case became the landmark for the use of celebrity references in artistic works that are not about that celebrity. (Maybe this loss is why Rogers did not even bother suing Madonna for the mention of Ginger Rogers’ name in the 1990 song “Vogue.”)

Legal questions of the use of personal likeness in video games are getting more attention in recent years, especially for athletes in sports games. (This, in turn, has caused questions of the copyrights of the tattoos of those athletes.)  It’s not clear whether a depiction of a dance associated with a performer infringes a right of publicity. If the court can accept the legal concept of a “signature dance move”, then the claim seems to meet the test given in the Rogers case. It would be very interesting to see if this litigation expands the claims that can be brought under right of publicity laws.

 

Conclusion: Trademark, Copyright, and Right of Publicity Have Similarities, but They’re Still Legally Distinct

Thinking about the use of someone else’s fame makes it easy to think of a trademark issue, but in this case, a fundamental analysis precludes trademark and points to copyright. However, remembering the role of fame leads to thinking about possible claims under right of publicity laws.  In legal analysis, it’s important to address the most fundamental questions before speculating on motive or intent.

Trademark law has a lot of purposes and roles. One function of trademark law is to protect the goodwill, fame, and celebrity that a person or company worked to build up, and prevent other people from taking advantage of that work without permission. However, not every case of using someone else’s fame is a trademark case.

 

 

Endnote- Patents

Can dance moves be protected by patent? This is a non-starter. 35 USC 101 outlines eligibility for patentable subject matter as “new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter.” Obviously, choreography isn’t considered an invention or discovery that fits those categories.  Debates about patentability are fierce and complicated, especially as humanity explores new territory in medicine  and computer science.  I wonder whether dance will be considered for patent when it is programmed into a hologram’s performance (the choreography itself will likely be exempt from any patent) or when it is created by an AI system that is patented (I think this will be a more complex argument over whether this is a process for creating choreography).

 

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In Which I Use Multiple Materials To Write About Separating Separability

Crafting and Separability

Crafting became the must-have feature in a video game after Minecraft’s astounding success. Since this game mechanic became the bandwagon that no studio could NOT jump on, games varied the complexity, the modularity, and the reversibility of the crafting. (They also varied the intuitiveness of the system, but that’s a different complaint.)

In some games, players can get either raw materials or modular pieces back by deconstructing items that they have crafted: Diablo 3 (random chances for raw materials when salvaging items), Fallout 4 (gives modular pieces rather than raw materials), Elder Scrolls Online, Fortnite (weapons, but not buildings), Destiny 2 (arguably, this deconstruction is functionally more like selling it), Borderlands: Pre-Sequel (the grinder will turn a trio of items into an item of equal or greater value, with random chances for quality).

In other games, players do not have the opportunity to recover resources after crafting an item (though frustrated players have created game mods to allow deconstruction): Minecraft, Darkmoon (the Sword of Talon cannot be unmade), Skyrim, Warframe, Don’t Starve, Stardew Valley, Dragon Age: Inquisition (in Single Player you can remove addons; you can deconstruct in multiplayer), Dead Rising, Terraria.

For video games, the decision to allow players to salvage or reuse item parts is about game balance. When crafting an item includes a random chance of an additional benefit, game designers are aware of the possibility for players to deconstruct and reconstruct until they get the additional benefit they want. When the crafted item does not bring new benefits, game designers still have to evaluate the way that players will obtain resources.

There is another concern about balance when courts examine the possibility to conceptually deconstruct an object into the raw materials of function and aesthetic. Courts must be careful to afford the correct category of intellectual property protection based on the nature of the subject matter seeking legal protection. Unfortunately, determining function vs aesthetic is controversial at best, and it can sometimes feel more like a game with an RNG element added to item deconstruction.

 

Star Athletica v. Varsity Brands

In 2017, the Supreme Court ruled on a dispute between two companies that make cheerleading outfits. The court did not rule about whether a copyright infringement actually happened in this case. Instead, the court sent the case back to a lower court to decide that—but the court sent the case back along with a new rule about copyright protections. The new rule is that if a part of something can be “perceived” as art that would qualify for copyright protection, then the whole thing can be protected by copyright:

“an artistic feature of the design of a useful article is eligible for copyright protection if the feature (1) can be perceived as a two- or three-dimensional work of art separate from the useful article and (2) would qualify as a protectable pictorial, graphic, or sculptural work either on its own or in some other medium if imagined separately from the useful article.”

“Useful articles” are generally not protectable by copyright (they should instead usually be subject to patents, which work very differently from copyright protection).

Before this ruling, many lower courts had created (often similar) tests to evaluate the aesthetic elements of a larger object or article. One effect of this ruling is that it forges, out of the raw materials of many separability tests, one single separability test for all US courts.

 

Is Star Athletica compatible with 17 USC 9?

In the 1980s, computer hardware manufacturers were concerned about getting the right kind of protection for computer chips for the new micro processors that were becoming popular. More specifically, they were concerned about protecting a very specific piece of the chip production process: the photomask (aka mask work). The mask work is the 3-D blueprint and stencil for the manufacture of a silicon microchip.

The concern was that patents would either not apply or not give adequate protection (as far as I was able to find in research, this fear was never put to the test in courts, and I remain unpersuaded that the mask works would not qualify for either a design or a utility patent). However, the functional nature of the photomask device (as a key part of a manufacturing process) precluded it from copyright and trademark protection. The computer industry successfully lobbied congress, and a new section was added to chapter 17 of the United States Code. Despite the fact that the title of chapter 17 is simply “Copyrights,” section 9 is distinctly unlike the copyright protections described in other sections: it protects a specific, functional category of objects (mask works), offers a different length of protection, and prescribes different statutory damages for infringement.

Generally speaking, the law tries to avoid redundancy and overlap. Does Star Athletica decision create some kind of redundancy or overlap with 17 USC 9? Star Athletica allows for functional articles to be subject to copyright if there is an aesthetic element found in the functional article. The court does not carefully explain whether an aesthetic element must be, in itself, not functional (nor is the term “functional” defined). There is no overlap if Mask Works lack an aesthetic element—despite the fact that they look like art in themselves, there is probably no element of the Mask Work which is not functional, which may preclude the possibility of an aesthetic element. Inasmuch the Star Athletica decision should be read as not creating redundancy or overlap with existing statutes, this decision must be interpreted as a ruling that there are no aesthetic elements that are separable from the mask work that would be subject to copyright protection.

Separating Hard Cases of Inseparability: Ribbon Racks

Measuring Star Athletica against 17 USC 9 is important because of the difficult cases in Intellectual Property where functionality and aesthetics are not clearly distinct. Function and aesthetic are often broad cues for which type of protection a thing may be subject to receive (or prohibit from receiving). A seminal example is “ribbon rack” bicycle racks: the ubiquitous bicycle racks that take the form of an undulating metal ribbon were the subject of a copyright lawsuit (as well as trademark). The SDNY court ruled that:

“While the RIBBON Rack may be worthy of admiration for its aesthetic qualities alone, it remains nonetheless the product of industrial design. Form and function are inextricably intertwined in the rack, its ultimate design being as much the result of utilitarian pressures as aesthetic choices. . . . Thus there remains no artistic element of the RIBBON Rack that can be identified as separate and ‘capable of existing independently, of, the utilitarian aspects of the article.’”

The dissent in the case felt that this thinking entirely destroyed any hope of conceptual separability. This disagreement draws out the challenging questions: whether, when, and how aesthetic elements can be distinguished or delineated or extracted from a functional article.

 

Star Athletica In the Context of the Intellectual Property Landscape

Design Patents cover the non-functional ornamental elements of an invention. The Star Athletica case might expand copyright closer to design patent territory. Most cases will be able to still separate the two, mostly on the basis of subject-matter and/or whether the subject was issued a copyright registration or a design patent. Nevertheless, I predict that either (1) there will be a case to settle an argument between the USPTO and the Library of Congress as to who ought to have jurisdiction over a specific subject-matter, or (2) a case will have to decide on something that could conceivably be claimed by either, and a court will need to effectively adjust either Star Athletica or a patent statute in order to make a coherent ruling.

The Star Athletica decision demonstrates that intellectual property is both unified and divided by questions over functionality and aesthetic: IP is unified by these questions because no other area of law is so focused on this philosophical point; IP is divided by the answer to this question because different categories of IP will apply based on the functional or aesthetic nature of the object or article under question. At the same time that more academics and attorneys are pushing for less use of the term “intellectual property,” cases like Star Athletica and Converse v ITC push patents, trademarks, and copyright analysis closer together, focusing on two common questions: What is functional and what is aesthetic? How do we separate them when both are present?

 

Inseparable Bundle of Distinct Intellectual Properties

There is an ongoing push to separate the pieces of Intellectual Property Law (copyright, trademark, patent, and trade secret). Some attorneys and academics want people to stop using the term “intellectual property” entirely, citing confusion for both the public and the courts.

One of the core arguments is that “intellectual property” can be broken into more fine, discrete elements (copyright, patent, trademark, and trade secret). However, each of these categories can be broken into subcategories, areas, and elements. One author recently wrote that a discussion on fair use has nothing to do with patent law. However, a discussion on fair use of academic papers also has nothing to do with ephemeral recordings, royalties for mechanical licenses, or protection for mask works (which are explicitly not subject to copyright but are still included in chapter 17 of the USC). The mere fact that a broad category can be understood as made up of smaller categories is not sufficient reason to entirely reject the notion of the broader category… But this issue should be fully addressed separately, in a different blog post.

Conclusion

In a game with crafting, the designers have established a method for deconstruction or they have decided not to include such a method. A player can either have the expectation of deconstructing an item, or the player knows that item crafting will permanently destroy the materials used (except in Elder Scrolls Online, when some items just don’t show up for deconstruction and no one knows why except that it’s a Bethesda game). In cases of intellectual property, the courts may or may not find that an object or article can be conceptually separated into functional and aesthetic elements. However, when the court does find that such separability is possible, Star Athletica will guide the court’s evaluation of the separated elements.